Once gaming was a solitary pursuit usually confined to teenagers' bedrooms. That's no longer the case as it's now possible for players from different countries to battle it out or challenge each other for a game of football. Henry Tucker logs on to the world of internet gaming.

Online gaming has its roots with the PC and its ability to connect with other PCs anywhere in the world using ethernet and other technologies. This dates back to the 1970s with primitive games on systems such as PLATO IV that enabled up to 32 players to join a game.

These games were mainly run on existing networks within universities such as the University of Illinois, within the military such as ARPANET and also at NASA.

Today, with many homes having broadband internet access, online gaming has never been more widely available. It has also moved from being the reserve of a geeky few to something many people use as another form of communication.

It’s also not limited to just the PC either as the three main games consoles - Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii all have the capability to play games online. Not surprisingly, given the company’s history with PCs and networking, it was Microsoft that took the idea of creating a gaming network into the mainstream.

However, it wasn't the first company to think of it. When SEGA launched its Dreamcast in 1999 it incorporated a dial-up modem into the console so that players could take their games online. Not surprisingly this ploy didn't work as the bandwidth wasn't good enough and even though SEGA introduced a broadband adapter for the Dreamcast it was just too ahead of its time.

When Microsoft entered the games market in 2001 with the Xbox, unlike the original version of Sony's PlayStation 2, it included an ethernet port. During the development of the Xbox, Microsoft stated that online gaming was one of the pillars of its strategy and a year after the console was launched, it announced Xbox Live!

Microsoft's entertainment and devices president Robbie Bach claims that Xbox Live! sets the Xbox 360 apart from its rivals. 'Xbox Live! is a big differentiator for us,' he said. 'That [Xbox Live!] drives a significant amount of energy around what's on with Xbox.'

To start with not many games had live functionality but this started to change and more titles were announced that supported it.

To counter the threat from Microsoft, Sony announced a revised version of the PS2, which included an ethernet port. It too enabled gamers to take their games online. However, it wasn't until the debut of the PlayStation 3 in November 2006 that Sony launched its equivalent of the Xbox Live!, the PlayStation Network (PSN). PSN also supports the handheld PlayStation Portable (PSP).

As well as enabling players to host games with their friends online, both Xbox Live! and PSN have features for chatting and more. A feature that is coming to PSN is the ability to create an avatar that represents your PS3 within what will be called PlayStation Home. These homes can then be personalised in a similar way to what Xbox 360 players can do to personalise their online presence - their gamertag.

It is features such as this, as well as the user generated characters within the Wii system, called Miis, that take the systems beyond the realms of purely gaming tools. Users who sign up for Xbox Live! can also send messages using Microsoft’s MSN instant messenger and have video and voice conversations using their connection.

In terms of billing, though, PSN and Live! differ. Live! has two options available, Silver and Gold. Silver is free and enables players to have their gamertag online and to download content from the Xbox Live! Marketplace.

Gold costs from £4.99 a month or £39.99 a year and enables players to play any Live! compatible games online. PSN is free and the only things that players need to pay for are some downloadable content and some massively multi-player online role playing games (MMORPGs).

Nintendo’s strategy is different. It uses what is called WiiConnect24 and it works with both the Wii and the handheld DS console. Whereas on PSN and Xbox Live! users have to navigate to the content that is available, with WiiConnect24 users can set it up so that Nintendo sends them things even when their consoles aren't active.

In addition to this, there are features such as the traditional multiplayer gaming, but also more eclectic and typically Nintendo features such as the Check Mii Out channel, where Mii characters can be exchanged and rated, a forecast channel for weather updates and a shopping channel.

When it comes to online gaming though consoles don't have it all there own way, PCs still play a big part. Xbox Live! is available for a number of titles in the Gaming for Windows banner on Windows Vista. But the biggest player has to be the MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW). This is an opened ended game that has been available since 2005. The game works on a subscription model and although based around quests in the traditional mould, players can join together to complete them.

There are other MMORPGs such as Eve online and City of Heroes, City of Villains but even these titles, which have been running for a number of years, haven't reached the numbers achieved by WoW, which has over 10 million subscribers worldwide.

The majority of other PC games played online are first person shooters (FPS) such as the Half-Life spinoff Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield 2. These games are an off shoot of LAN gaming where players battle each other on their own local network. The games also feature the ability to talk with other players and also to collaborate in teams.

As for the future, it's as hard as ever to say what will happen. Many studios have tried to mimic the success of World of Warcraft but few have managed it. Getting the balance right is very hard, some games take off, others don't.

With PC games there is also the issue of piracy, more so than with consoles. One possible way around this is to provide games electronically. Valve, developers of the hugely popular Half-Life series and also Counterstrike, runs a system called Steam.

The games can be downloaded and paid for through the system but it also acts as an activation service so only registered copies will work. The system also supports copies purchased in the usual retail outlets, so isn't reinventing the wheel either. Many industry observers consider this to be one possible route to try and limit piracy.

As for consoles, the current systems work really well and so will surely only be improved and tweaked rather than overhauled. One possibility for the future that has been suggested by publisher Electronic Arts (EA) is that games will be made available purely over the internet in a similar way to IPTV.

This would mean an end to consoles, as we have them, but instead the hardware would be built into television sets. This would mean that publishers like EA only have to develop for the one platform, which could reduce overheads. This, though, is just one idea and is unlikely to happen with three big players in the hardware market.

In terms of innovation with online games, one title that does look like it will be different is Empire of Sports. This is a multiplayer game where players have a character that can take part in one of 11 different sports against people from all over the world.

The games include tennis, basketball, skiing, bobsleigh, track and field and football. The biggest difference is that games such as football will be made up of 11 players on each side, rather than one player controlling the whole team. EA has added a similar concept to its football game, FIFA 08, and it seems that controlling one player amongst many is the way of the future.

In Empire of Sports, players will be able to compete in in-game tournaments, customise their avatars and property with in-game items, travel to other sporting cities, meet virtual coaches, and even join virtual societies.

'Forget fighting against orcs, elves and wizards; Empire of Sports delivers the most exciting player versus player action of any massively multiplayer online game,' said Christian Mueller, managing director, Empire of Sports. 'With team and individual sports to take part in, advanced social networking and a delicate exercise and nutritional balance, Empire of Sports is the game which will redefine how players interact, offering some the chance to be recognised as the very best virtual athletes in the world.'